Law & the Courts

Homicides Spike, Complicating the Republicans’ Push for Criminal-Justice Reform

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Candidates for the traditionally law-and-order GOP shifted their tone this year, emphasizing the need to focus on drug treatment and rehabilitation, reduce spending on prisons, and rethink the nation’s approach to crime. For voters wary about government overreach and high spending, the appeal is obvious — as long as crime rates decline. But America’s biggest cities are witnessing a sudden spike in homicides and shootings this year, raising the question of whether the dynamics of the crime issue are shifting under candidates’ feet.

This year’s urban murder statistics range from unnerving to jaw-dropping. In Milwaukee, 86 people were killed in 2014; 101 have been killed so far in 2015. In St. Louis, the number of homicides has increased from 120 in 2013 to 157 in 2014 to 127 so far this year. In New York City, the murder rate is up about 11 percent from last year’s pace, and shootings increased 2.8 percent. (Overall, crime in the city is down 5.6 percent.)

Baltimore, torn apart by riots in late April, is experiencing one of the worst crime surges. New York City has 13 times the population of Baltimore, but the smaller city actually has more homicides this year: 213 to New York’s 208. Baltimore’s murder rate through August 19 is an astounding 34 per 100,000 people. Chicago is on a quicker pace, too, with more than 299 homicides so far this year, after witnessing 426 last year. Washington, D.C., homicides are up 41 percent from last year.

Even in cities where the homicide rate isn’t up, crime is increasing. Take, for example, Los Angeles, which had 135 homicides in the first six months of 2014, compared with 126 in the same period this year: overall crime in the city is up 12 percent and violent crime is up 20.6 percent.

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All of the cities experiencing the homicide spike have liberal Democratic mayors and political establishments, and most experience increasingly severe tensions between their police forces and African-American residents. In those communities, the #BlackLivesMatter movement is having a much bigger impact on the discussion of crime and policing than in the nation at large.

On the surface, conservative criminal-justice reformers and the #BlackLivesMatter movement share some common goals — lower sentences for drug offenses, more treatment and less incarceration for those addicted to drugs — but the similarities end there. Reformers on the right want to change cops’ priorities; the most extreme voices on the left seek to delegitimize the cops’ authority entirely.

RELATED: Baltimore’s Problem, and America’s: The Criminal-Justice System Is a Disaster

Marc A. Levin is the director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the policy director for Right on Crime, a project touting new conservative approaches to the issue. He’s quick to point out that the criminal-justice reform movement still leaves plenty of room for severe penalties for convicted murderers.

“This is Texas,” Levin says. “We still execute people.” He’s quick to point out that sentencing reform and prison-reform initiatives don’t amount to “letting people out of prison willy-nilly.”

Several of the GOP presidential candidates are attempting to make the case that they are uniquely qualified to implement reforms in a way that balances mercy, justice, and cost-effectiveness. If only Nixon could go to China, only a law-and-order Republican can be trusted to change the criminal justice system in a way that punishes the guilty and ensures public safety.

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Former Texas governor Rick Perry and former Florida governor Jeb Bush signed Right on Crime’s statement of principles. “The criminal justice system must be transparent and include performance measures that hold it accountable for its result,” the statement reads, and “an ideal criminal justice system works to reform amenable offenders who will return to society through harnessing the power of families, charities, faith-based groups, and communities.”

Last month Perry spoke about criminal-justice reform at the National Press Club, and New Jersey governor Chris Christie gave an address on the issue in Camden, N.J., declaring, “Justice isn’t something we can jail our way to.” He just unveiled a new ad entitled “Law Enforcer,” although the ad’s topics range from sanctuary cities to ISIS to Hillary Clinton’s apparent belief that she doesn’t need to obey the law. Senator Rand Paul has made it one of the primary issues of his campaign, and John Kasich often touts his prison reform, sentencing reform, and assistance for drug addicts and the mentally ill.

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One big question as yet unresolved is how much the homicide rate affects perceptions of the crime rate.

“Homicides are the least accurate way of measuring changes in the crime rate, because they’re not that common, thankfully,” Levin says. “Homicides, even in places with higher rates, are relatively rare compared to property crimes, burglaries, stolen cars, and crimes like that.”

However, Stephen Eide, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute’s Center for State and Local Leadership, noted that deviation between homicide rates and overall crime rates is historically anomalous.

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“Throughout New York’s long crime decline, the rates for murder and total crime not only moved in the same direction but at roughly equal rates,” Eide writes in a new report analyzing New York City crime data. “Between 1990 and 2013, murders in the city fell 85.2 percent and total crime fell 78.9 percent. It therefore stands to reason that either the total crime or murder trend since January 2014 is anomalous.”

A major reason that the Right calls for criminal-justice reform is to get police to focus their toughest measures on violent criminals. Lawmakers on the other side of the divide seem to want the police to pull back across the board, leaving violent criminals more leeway.

RELATED: ’Broken Windows’ Policing Does Work

“#BlackLivesMatter represents a fringe, even among many Democrats,” says Levin. “The public is looking for positive answers, ways to reduce recidivism and get people back into he workforce. Shouting people down is not contributing to a positive dialogue.”

“Trying to pinpoint the cause [of the rise in homicides] is difficult, but the police appear to have backed off in Baltimore in part due to poor leadership,” Levin says. He contends that mayors who pull back their police in the face of riots, as Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake allegedly did in late April, are practicing “the opposite of broken windows [the theory of policing], inviting more egregious behavior.”

#related#“It’s worth asking whether reduced use of the stop-question-and-frisk tactic has something to do with the increase in shootings,” writes Eide, examining the policies of the New York Police Department under Mayor Bill de Blasio. “In 2014, guns recovered by the NYPD and other local agencies reached a nine-year low.”

It will take some time before the FBI issues uniform crime reports for 2015, assembling the crime statistics for the entire country; an assessment of the first six months of this year will probably be released in January 2016. But for now, there’s little sign suburban or rural jurisdictions are seeing a comparable spike in homicides. (This is not to say these areas are free from crime; heroin dealing and addiction are spreading rapidly in rural and Middle America.)

Levin notes that if the homicide spike is focused in big cities, and not a national crime epidemic, it points to particular law-enforcement and leadership problems in those cities. Perhaps a Republican president is needed to overcome Democratic mayors’ inertia in the face of a tsunami of homicides.

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